Want to Lead Better? It’s Simple

In a world of infinite choices, says author and consultant Bill Jensen, the job of a leader is to help people make the right choices.

By: Jill Rosenfeld

Bill Jensen has spent the past dozen years trying to figure out how leaders can have an impact in a business environment that is moving and changing faster than ever. His conclusion? It’s simple, really: The role of a leader is to simplify. "Knowledge work is all about how we use one another’s time and attention," Jensen says. "Given just minutes, good leaders can affect how we think, what we decide, and, ultimately, what we create."

Jensen, 44, runs a consulting firm out of a converted Victorian house in Morristown, New Jersey. Among the Jensen Group’s clients is a roster of big-name companies: When NationsBank and BankAmerica merged in 1988, Jensen helped develop strategies for change. And he simplified information sharing for Eli Lilly. He’s also helped many other companies — including Walt Disney World, Duracell, and Warner-Lambert Co. — make clearer choices in a complex world.

Jensen outlines the simple challenges of leadership in a new book, "Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster" (Perseus Books, 2000). During an interview with Fast Company, he offered some not-so-obvious insights about the hard work of keeping things simple.

Why is it so difficult to keep organizations focused and effective?

You have to start with the assumption that most people in most organizations want to do the right thing. But in a world of infinite choices, people are struggling to figure out what the right thing is.

If you look closely at how people make decisions, a clear pattern emerges. No matter what the new strategy, initiative, or change program is, people have the same questions: How is this change relevant to what I do? What, specifically, should I do? How will I be measured, and what consequences will I face? What tools and support are available? What’s in it for me?

The leader’s job is to help people answer those questions. After all, if people can’t answer those questions on their own, then the grapevine will provide the answers — and those answers won’t always be right.

Why aren’t leaders better at being leaders?

Because they pretend that the challenges of leadership are rational and tactical, rather than emotional and conversational. Many leaders believe that if they just "pull the right levers," the organization will move in the right direction. But the most critical factor in the success or failure of any plan is whether conversations with the leader have some impact on what people do. It’s during those conversations that people decide how to apply their time and attention.

There’s another problem. Most plans are organized and communicated according to marketplace logic. But people don’t listen to marketplace logic; they listen for meaning and purpose. Attention can’t be bought. Attention is rich and complex because it comes in many forms: time commitment, recognition, guidance, caring, assistance in new skills. Before any interaction, ask yourself, "How do I want to make people feel?" Put yourself in their shoes. The role of a leader is to create an experience that will inspire people to take action.

What else does a leader need in order to lead people to action?

A sense of clarity. The leader’s job is to help people visualize success. And it’s easier to understand success by talking about behaviors than by talking about revenues.

Here’s an example: Lynn Mercer, who’s now a vice president for Lucent’s Wireless Networks Group, used to be a plant manager for Lucent. In that role, she tracked all of the usual measures of productivity. But she also held workshops on what success looks like in behavioral terms.

Mercer recently said this to me about what she was trying to do: "When people come here from any other culture, they learn that reaching a mediocre goal is less meaningful than setting a difficult goal and not reaching it. True success comes when you hit a crisis or rough spot, and people don’t revert to their old behaviors. That’s the real hard part for all of us."

Any definition of success must include three measures: results, milestones, and what successful behavior looks like. People need to know what effect success will have on how they and their teammates interact — and on what they devote their time and attention to.

Contact Bill Jensen by email ([email protected]).
Sidebar : Simple Stories

To simplify, you have to clarify. And the best way to clarify a new strategy or change initiative, says consultant Bill Jensen, is to communicate in the form of a story. So how do you turn a plan into a compelling story?

You start by defining the conflict. Conflict is what makes the case for change. "When you help people discover a conflict," says Jensen, "you create a feeling of dissatisfaction by showing them that the only alternative is to abandon the old ways."

A story also needs to have a theme — a conceptual framework for action. A mission, a vision, and a set of values provide that framework and lend integrity and texture to the plot.

Transitions will move the plot along. Transitions occur whenever a company celebrates its success and examines the lessons that it has learned along the way. They help employees understand how far they’ve come, how they can continue to improve, and how far they still have to go. "Unfortunately, too few companies are smart about celebrating their successes," Jensen says. "Even fewer capture and promote the lessons that they’ve learned."

The climax is the moment of truth. The climactic moment for a company is when its annual goals are met, or when the results of a change program really start to kick in. "People need to have a clear picture of what all of their hard work has created," says Jensen. And they need to experience a sense of shared purpose — they need an easy-to-understand context for making decisions in a complex world.

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